BERLIN (AP) — Former Chancellor Angela Merkel was decorated with Germany's highest possible honor on Monday in recognition of her near-record 16 years at the helm of the country.
President Frank-Walter Steinmeier bestowed the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit for special achievement on the four-term chancellor, who became only the third ex-leader to receive that level of distinction. The other two were Konrad Adenauer, West Germany's first leader, and Helmut Kohl, who led Germany to reunification.
“For 16 years, you served Germany — with ambition, with wisdom, with passion,” Steinmeier told Merkel and a group of guests — handpicked by Merkel herself — in his laudatory speech at the president's residence, Bellevue Palace, in Berlin.
“For 16 long years, you worked for freedom and democracy, for our country and the well-being of its people. Tirelessly and sometimes to the limits of your physical strength,” Steinmeier added.
Merkel, 68, was the first woman to lead Germany and the first chancellor who grew up behind the Iron Curtain in communist East Germany.
“You were not only the first woman in the chancellery,” the president said. “With your chancellorship, you ensured that a woman at the head of government, that female power too, will forever be a matter of course in our country.”
Merkel stepped down in December 2021 with a well-regarded record of leading Europe's biggest economy through a series of crises, including the global financial crisis, the eurozone debt crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic. She didn't seek a fifth term and ended her tenure as post-World War II Germany's second-longest serving leader, 10 days short of one-time mentor Kohl's record.
Steinmeier praised Merkel for “three outstanding skills.”
“First, your insistence on facts and your willingness to cut through the facts. Second, your art of negotiation and your ability to compromise. And third, your firmness, your unwaveringness, with which you upheld very fundamental principles of our state,” Steinmeier said.
However, he added, “for good politics you need something else — and that’s confidence.”
“At your farewell ceremony, you called it the ‘cheerfulness in your heart.’ I wish you that you always keep this cheerfulness in your heart.”
In a short response after Steinmeier’s speech, Merkel thanked the many different people who helped her along the four terms of her chancellorship — including some of those who attended the ceremony such as her husband, Joachim Sauer, her longtime spokesman Steffen Seibert, many political companions and advisers, and even former German national soccer coach Juergen Klinsmann.
“Quite a lot of people are part of it when you are chancellor for 16 years,” Merkel said. “I can now only say thank you and simply say I have had many very, very good experiences.”
Merkel's legacy has attracted increasingly critical scrutiny since her departure, largely because of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine. She has staunchly defended her diplomatic efforts, saying that a much-criticized 2015 peace deal for eastern Ukraine bought Kyiv precious time.
She also has been unapologetic about her government's decisions to buy large quantities of natural gas from Russia, Germany's primary gas supplier when she left office, saying last year that “from the perspective of that time” those decisions made sense.
Merkel has kept a relatively low profile since stepping down and has stayed out of the current political fray. Her successor, Olaf Scholz, also attended Monday's ceremony.